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Drama Revisited: Classical myths in opera

As The Royal Opera revives Elektra, we explore other examples of legends on the lyric stage.

By Kate Hopkins (Opera and Music Publications Officer)

23 September 2013 at 12.55pm | Comment on this article

Elektra is a reworking of the great Greek tragedy by Sophocles. To mark the return of Charles Edwards’ production to the Royal Opera House we cast an eye over other operas that have been inspired by Classical myths, poetry and plays.

Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria (1640)

The second of only three Monteverdi operas to have survived, Il ritorno d’Ulisse is based on the conclusion of Homer’s Odyssey. Ulisse (Odysseus) finally returns home from the Trojan War after ten years of wandering. He discovers his faithful wife Penelope besieged by greedy suitors who believe he is dead. Each of the suitors hopes to inherit Ulisse’s wealth and depose his son Telemaco (Telemachus). With the help of the goddess Minerva, Ulisse disposes of the suitors and convinces Penelope of his true identity. Reunited, husband and wife sing a rapturous duet (‘O delle mie fatiche meta dolce e soave’).

Les Troyens (1863, first performed in full 1890)

Virgil’s epic poem The Aeneid provided the inspiration for this massive opera. Berlioz wrote his own libretto, referring closely to Virgil’s original text. He loved the Aeneid, and knew it intimately – he described Virgil as ‘the first to find a way to my heart and to enflame my growing imagination’. Over four hours in length, Les Troyens covers the sack of Troy and Aeneas’s romantic and ultimately tragic stay in Carthage. Highlights of the score include the Trojans’ procession with the Trojan Horse in Act I, the burning of Troy and the suicide of the Trojan women in Act II, Dido and Aeneas’s rapturous love duet ‘Nuit d’ivresse’ in Act IV and Dido’s heartbreaking suicide aria ‘Je vais mourir’ in Act V. Les Troyens is perhaps the longest opera to be written on a Classical theme.

Ariadne auf Naxos (1912, revised 1916)

The Prologue of Richard Strauss’s opera (in its 1916 revised version) opens with a composer preparing for the premiere of his opera about the Cretan princess Ariadne, abandoned by Theseus on the island of Naxos. The Composer sees Ariadne as the ultimate emblem of fidelity and love, and is horrified to discover that his opera will be staged at the same time as a commedia dell’arte piece, ‘The Unfaithful Zerbinetta’. In the second part of the evening, the story of the mythical Ariadne, three nymphs and the god Bacchus collides hilariously with the dancing, bad behaviour and ironic comments of the commedia dell’arte performers. The legend wins out in the end as the commedia dell’arte troupe leave Ariadne and Bacchus to sing their sublime final duet ‘Lag nicht die Welt auf meiner Brust?’

Richard Strauss revisited Classical mythology in Die ägyptische Helen (1928), Daphne (1938) and Die Liebe der Danae (1940, first performed publicly 1952).

The Minotaur (2008)

Harrison Birtwistle’s tautly constructed Royal Opera commission is based on the Greek legend of the Minotaur. The Minotaur had the body of a man and the head of a bull, and may have been the son of the god Poseidon. He was imprisoned in a labyrinth in the Palace at Knossos in Crete, where the Athenian hero Theseus killed him with the help of the Minotaur’s half-sister Ariadne. Birtwistle tells the story from the point of view of all three characters. Theseus is coolly heroic, intent on his task. Ariadne longs to escape the island, and expresses her frustration eloquently in her solo scenes, particularly the third scene in Act I, when she re-enacts the conception and birth of the Minotaur. The Minotaur is given a particularly poignant voice and in his solo scenes movingly describes his tragedy: he is neither man nor beast. Birtwistle draws on Greek theatrical traditions in his use of a masked chorus who torment the Minotaur in his labyrinth.

There are countless other examples of operas inspired by Classical myth. Which is your favourite?

The Minotaur is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from the Royal Opera House Shop.

The Royal Opera's Elektra runs from 23 September - 12 October 2013 and Ariadne auf Naxos from 25 June - 13 July 2014.

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